Miami — The theme of this meeting of the Republican Governors Association is that, after the GOP’s loss of the White House, the House, and the Senate, power in the party has now settled firmly among the nation’s 23 Republican governors. If you’re a Republican member of Congress, how much can you really get done? If you’re the Republican president, how many days do you have left? But if you’re a Republican governor — well, you’re where the action is.
And it just so happens that, for the purposes of this gathering, Sarah Palin isn’t the losing vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket. She’s the governor of Alaska, and now, just eight days after standing on stage with John McCain to concede defeat, she is here at the Intercontinental Hotel talking about the future.“On the federal level, we are now the minority party, but let us resolve not to become the negative party,” Palin told her fellow governors, along with assorted party activists and lobbyists. “Americans will be looking to their governors.”
And looking for what? To hear Palin, as well as the other governors tell it, voters will be looking for future GOP leaders who are not like current GOP leaders. Here at the conference, when a speaker denounces “Washington D.C.,” he or she is politely referring to Republicans in Washington, D.C. Hence, Palin said, “Washington, D.C., leaders spent public money in disregard of the public interest, just like the opponents they used to criticize.” And Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, said Americans want “the kind of leadership that you see displayed by Republican governors — not necessarily what you see in Washington, D.C.” The dirtiest words here in Miami are “Washington, D.C., values.”
Now that Republicans are on the outs, they have decided that outside is the place to be.
And they’re probably right. For Republicans, the governors’ offices around the country are where ideas are likely to be applied practically, where political leadership will be discovered and tested, and where future national candidates will sharpen their governing skills. Although the loss of the presidential election is the backdrop to this meeting, everyone here will tell you that Republicans shouldn’t be thinking about 2012, because the way to build long-term success is by achieving short-term success.
“I thought Sarah was very right to say that we’re focused on 2009 and 2010,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told reporters. “Thirty-six governors’ races in 2010, including in Florida — that’s where our focus is. When I was chairman of the Republican National Committee the last time we lost the White House, after the 1992 election, we focused exclusively on 1993 and 1994. And at the end of that time, we had both houses of Congress with Republican majorities, and we’d gone from 17 Republican governors to 31. So anyone talking about 2012 today doesn’t have their eye on the ball. What we ought to worry about is rebuilding our party over the next year and particularly in 2010.”
If that’s the message, then Palin is very much on message. Speaking to the governors, she made a few jokes about the campaign — reporting on her last year, she said, “I had a baby, I did some traveling, I very briefly expanded my wardrobe, I made a few speeches, met a few VIPs, including those who really impact society, like Tina Fey, but other than that, it was pretty much the same old, same old.” She praised John McCain. She recounted inspiring moments involving children with special needs. And then she spent a lot of time talking about the future — the governors’ future.
“Let the pundits go on with their idle talk about the next election, about what happens in 2012,” she said. “Our concern should be about our state’s next great reform, our next budget, our next opportunity to progress in the states that we serve, and on issues like taxes and energy and health care, immigration, education, we will not lack for opportunities to serve and to lead and to show the way.”
Palin grabbed an enormous share of the attention, but there was a lot of serious thinking going on among other governors and would-be governors. Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota and a finalist in the Republican vice-presidential sweepstakes, spent a lot of time trying to reconcile the emerging reform vs. tradition split in the party. “Our country is changing,” Pawlenty said. “And we have not done a very good job translating our values and principles, which are as true and as valid as ever, into the context and circumstances of our time.”
But before the governors could set about translating those values and principles, they had to get their heads around the extent of their party’s loss. “You cannot be a majority governing party,” Pawlenty continued, “if you lose all of the Northeast, all of the Great Lakes states, all of the West Coast, increasing numbers of Western states, increasing numbers of mid-Atlantic states, have a big deficit with women, have a big deficit with modest income voters, have a big deficit with Hispanic voters, have a big deficit with African-Americans, and expect that’s going to be a success formula for the future.”
Palin’s re-emergence here left a lot of Republicans wondering whether she would be part of a reformed GOP leadership. Barbour said she “helped the ticket,” but yesterday, during a session with the press, Pawlenty and a group of other leaders seemed hesitant to endorse her candidacy. When a reporter asked whether they would have been comfortable with Palin as president, there was a long silence. “I think Gov. Palin is an extremely talented person, and she’s going to be one of the key voices of the party, for Republicans, for a long time to come,” Pawlenty answered. “All I can say is that John McCain made very clear that one of his key criteria for selecting a VP running mate was that that person was ready to be president on day one. So in his judgment, she met that criteria, and he felt strongly about that, and so we’ll have to defer to his judgment and that process.”
It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, and none of the others at the table – Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former eBay CEO and top McCain aide Meg Whitman, and former OMB chief Rob Portman — said specifically that they would have been comfortable with Palin as president.
But everyone here knows how she energized a Republican base that had otherwise been lukewarm to John McCain. So now, whether or not they think she is the future of the Republican party, Palin’s colleagues know that she is popular among Republicans (76 percent of Republicans in a new Gallup poll say they’d like to see Palin become “a major national political figure for many years to come”), she’s been an effective governor, and she is certainly a factor for all those who envision themselves running for president four years from now. Not from Washington, D.C., but from their governors’ offices.